Themes and Meanings

“The Man in a Case” provides a vivid illustration of one of Anton Chekhov’s major concerns: humanity’s essential need to be free from tyranny and coercion. He once wrote that his “holy of holies” included “the human body, health, intelligence . . . and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take.” In the character of Belikov, he created a memorable portrait of a social tyrant, a mean-spirited individual who not only maintains rigid control over himself but also suppresses impulses toward liberation in others. To oppose this shabby tyrant, Chekhov created the characters of Mikhail and Varenka Kovalenko, two strong, healthy youths whose determination to live life to the fullest cannot be thwarted by the threats and imprecations of the oppressor. Unfortunately, as Burkin’s narrative indicates, such free spirits as the Kovalenkos are relatively rare in Russia. The Belikovs of the world are much more numerous, and they have proved frighteningly successful: Burkin’s entire town is enslaved to public opinion and to an ineradicable anxiety over social or professional success. Aside from the salutary effect of Kovalenko’s defiance and Varenka’s laughter, Chekhov’s story provides no clear-cut program to break the pernicious pattern set by Belikov and his meek followers. Instead, his tale serves as a kind of sober warning to his readers of a profound yet insidious threat to human freedom and fulfillment.